I have heard from several astrologically inclined folks whose views I trust and respect that this eclipse calls for committing to the fire the attributes, stories, tendencies, convictions, relational dynamics, and whatever else we intend to release, as well as those we would like to invoke.
I followed the eclipse (yes, quite literally, on foot and in a car) from its partial appearance at sunset to its total, bloody spectre in the deepening darkness. The streets were quiet. The people who gathered at the bluffs along the coast to observe this phenomenon kept for the most part a silent vigil.
At each full moon, eclipse or no eclipse, I tend to keep a record of my day, where I spent time and with whom, as well as the objects of my thoughts. I will also think back both to the previous full moon, and especially to the full moon six months prior, as a given full moon is thematically interrelated to the one on the far side of the year.
Six months ago, the full moon was in Taurus. Now it is in the opposite sign of Scorpio. One theme of this polarity is visibility/invisibility. Taurus represents the tangible, that which is in full bloom, or that which exudes texture, scent, shape, and other characteristics that can be observed and appreciated by the senses. Scorpio represents the hidden processes that conspire to render the tangible into existence. Scorpio refers to the subterranean cycle of decay, death, and regeneration that is always at work, though often veiled.
The full moon in Scorpio during the height of spring, when the Taurean blooms are at their fullest, asks that we remember the other side of the year, the inevitable recycling of organic matter.
And so it is a good time to anticipate release, the death of something, as we also appreciate the transitory splendor of all the colors and fragrances with which nature surrounds us.
So, perhaps it is helpful to understand the “blooms” in one’s life through the lens of the opposite full moon.
Six months ago, in mid-November 2021, where were you? Whom did you see? What conversations did you have? Where did you travel? What kind of work did you do? Does looking back at that day aid our understanding of what we have brought to bloom? And what has come to its fullness today that will be ripe for letting go in six months’ time? What actions, thoughts, relationships, or personal endeavors would you like to see evolved in another six months?
As an example of such a recording, today I did the following, some of it intentional, some of it impromptu (but no less important):
Shared a meal with my parents – a new take on an old recipe.
Did a solo yoga practice at the beach, and while walking back to my car was given a beautiful flower arrangement from a wedding party whose reception had ended and needed to divest themselves of the flowers; these flowers are now installed next to my hearth.
Sat with a dear friend and reflected on how we have both grown out of difficult personal trials over the past six months.
Cleared my desk of some editorial work.
Made myself a favorite meal of roasted vegetables in cascabel chili oil with a lime zest and cilantro finish.
Walked along the bluffs to watch the sun set over the distant mountains, and the moon rise in its partial eclipse.
Drove to the same beach where I did yoga earlier and watched the moon assume its bloody veil, while standing barefoot on the warm earth to “open the channels” of perception.
Returned home and read over some of my poetry, to find that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.
As for six months ago, I stood barefoot watching the moon that night as well, only the soil was softer and colder, and my bones felt as hollow and resonant as a bird’s.
And for you, good reader, what threads of the tapestry of your life are woven into the other side of the year?
This can be a revelatory point of reflection, especially for those of us who like to go in for some semiotics, weighing sign for sign, or symbol for symbol. Those beautiful wedding flowers, or the yoga, or the poems, or the cascabel chilies…what do they mean? Where will they find their corollary this November?
But for me this time around, the lessons of six months are simple: Time is a healer and a teacher like no other. Things happen in their own time, rising, taking shape, falling away. It is possible to assure oneself of something intellectually without the heart’s credence, or the body’s readiness, and these can be forced, but the result is not a happy one.
It is important to be deliberate, incisive, and courageous with one’s recording and reckoning, but also tender and compassionate.
Enjoy the eclipse, and I will leave it to you, reader, to determine its meaning for yourself, as you will and must do despite my and my astrological kindred’s best efforts to win you to our convictions!
“[W]e do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies at the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch
This full-bodied ecstasy/tragedy/transcendence Eliot describes I read as a form of love, the petulant, senseless thing that makes us pay close attention to all words, gestures, and idiosyncrasies of the beloved to the point of being overcome with an intermingling of joy, fear, longing, and pain. What if the world in all its ordinariness appeared to us the way the beloved does?
I do believe this to be possible, especially during the times (for instance the pandemic) when for many love is in a kind of “fallow” season (to use as a metaphor the “fallow field”, the resting field which farmers leave unworked for a period of time to allow the soil to replenish itself).
It is the contention of this blog entry that love itself is a fallow land, a land of things growing invisibly, things in process, that will yield fruit, but in its own time and form, often counter to expectation, but as I trust in the way that is most beneficial, most needed for the soul’s ecosystem and equilibrium.
Love in “Special Relationships” and in the Wild Beyond
Earnest lovers, burning ones, bereaved ones out there, the pandemic has been especially hard on the heart, which has had to cope with grief, loss, and loves fleeting, or transforming beyond their recognizable species, all experienced within four walls, in the isolation, the quiet that does not necessarily translate into quietude.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it seems that many of my regular questions pertain to love, and my review of old favorite texts for teaching brings me into new and unexpected contact with it. I took special note, for instance, when the title character of Sophocles’ Antigone insists, “It is in my nature to join in love, not to join in hatred” (my translation of line 523 in Storr’s 1912 open access edition), when threatened with death as punishment for burying her brother in defiance of her uncle the king’s decree. The commentators who have assigned the motives for Antigone’s transgression to the political, or the incestuous are rather missing the mark, I think – why can love, in its undeniable simplicity, in its unrelenting demands for action, not be a heroic motivation (in Antigone’s case, for keeping the order of divine law)?
After all, love (whether philia for kin, in Antigone’s case, or eros for the beloved, as in the case of the discussion at Plato’s Symposium) is a blistering confrontation with the discomfiting aspects of human nature, the fallow, wanting ones that goad with invisible creative impulses.
There is something heroic about love’s catalyzing force, the peculiar systems of ethics it places in us in concert with its characteristic physical and psychological inflammation. Even if a love relationship ends or is not destined for fulfilment, there is something transformative, purifying (cognate with Greek pur, “fire”) in the internal experience of love, which can still be lived to its fullness, even if the specific relationship that conjured it is not extant.
For it is this stage of learning, lovers, where the going does get tough. When I was an undergraduate and fond of studying A Course in Miracles, I found a particular focus in that text on “special relationships”, and how it is so very human (and spiritually so) to imagine that a specific person, or a specific concept of God will fulfil one’s happiness and expressions of one’s best or most spiritual self, as the young Dorothea in Eliot’s Middlemarch is hoping from her marriage to the distinguished clergyman and scholar Reverend Casaubon (spoiler alert: she is disappointed).
But surely the passion of love is so consuming because it is made for more than those “special relationships”. It is made for more than all persons, and all beings. It is made for creation itself. Yes, a sweeping, far-reaching statement, and you are welcome to attribute this to my reading too many ecstatic poems, or sitting in too many kirtan ceremonies where we chant numerous divine names and devotionally embrace as many facets of the limitless sacred as possible in two hours.
Sometimes a good mindfulness practice, or in other words, the practice of slowing to the rhythms of nature immediate can render a capacity for tremendous feeling reminiscent of Eliot’s quotation with which I started this entry. And as I realized the other week on a beach walk, when I gave full attention to the sensations in my feet, to the sand and the ebbing tide, my heart ached with a new kind of openness for knowledge of the generosity and fecundity of life all around, far beyond preoccupation and care for any person or situation.
When unrequited, or left ignored, ignorant, and wandering, love is resourceful – it can work with all that the senses can deliver unto it, and transmute itself into an expansive place of knowing life, its beginnings, patterns of sustainability, and endings in all things.
Feeding Love in its Fallow Season
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates’ teacher Diotima calls Love a daimon, a spirit that wanders the earth, perpetually longing and unsatisfied, always seeking beauty, truth, fulfilment – like the human soul.
So following this logic, anyone capable of loving, whether currently in a satisfying “special relationship” or not, is in a kind of perpetual “fallow season” of waiting, indefinitely, for something more to be experienced, or learned. If we believe Diotima (andher reasoning is hard to fault), Love destitute and desperate is the one that teaches, the one we can dance with, the one that can initiate us into wisdom, if we feel the proper measures of safety, courage, and curiosity on our side.
And so I have some of my own recommendations for all of us who choose to identify with the fallow season of love:
Cast the ideal of the beloved, or the “perfect relationship/romance” into the heart’s fire. Let it burn there, and recognize that it might bear little resemblance to the actual person, or situation.
Take your shoes off and stand on the earth. Smell, touch, listen to the conversations of the people around you. Notice the generations of life represented. Respect how they know love in their own ways. Observe with your heart.
On the hard days, if it is safe, let the tears come, let the shoulders shake, let the throat be raw and the forehead scrunch up. Rock from foot to foot, and ask the feet to move in the way that is needed, that is kindest.
Dance to your medicine songs. Mine currently include the works of Debussy, Kate Wolf, This Is the Kit, Gabrielle Roth, Simon and Garfunkel, and Krishna Das.
Spend time with those who remind of your light, and be gentle with and undemanding of whoever is in front of you. They have hearts too, at varying stages of openness. Tend their light too.
Read. Paint. Write. Draw. Dance. Sing. Cook. These are all reminders that the generosity and fecundity of life reside within you.
And sometimes the heart needs to close to heal itself. If you know it is in your best interest to retreat from exercises of heart, this is the right thing, for I agree with Socrates that lovers are moral philosophers – there is an ethics to the practice. And even if you dowse the flame of love for your own protection, there will be embers there, living below the dirt, waiting for the winds to turn…or, to use the fallow field metaphor, as that is where I began, there will be restoration taking place in those hidden spaces in the soil…
Abide, all loves who read this!
And enjoy a poem…
My Heart, an Altar to Love
It started with you,
who played your song on my lips.
and then you,
whose hands held my flesh, as if weighing clay
and then you,
who kissed the invisible place between my eyebrows
and then you,
who drained me of my body’s rivers
and then you,
who traced the outline of my ear under the moon
and now you,
who sing my praises like a reed in the wind.
But the winds have changed
you say I’ve lost the glimmer of your gaze
my ears have grown like my nose, in an ugly way
there is too much flesh to move between your hands
there is no moon that can make you want me anymore.
Yes, this title poses a tall order, but that is the task ahead of me, after completing my first ever workshop at the Esalen Institute, a week-long workshop based on Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms dance program, conceived at Esalen and defined in part as a series of “Maps to Ecstasy”.
Having returned, I am to find the maps leading out of ecstasy and back into the “normal” world. The integration phase is so often talked about, and so very important to any new and revelatory life experience (an academic conference, a birth, a death, a psychedelic trip, a wedding, a music festival, a hospital stay). A hero’s nostos or homeward journey is often where the challenges begin. Yet the integration process is so particular to each person that it is difficult to distil, to define, to come up with a list of “here’s what you do”.
But here I will at least attempt (itself a part of my integration process) to share something of the workshop experience and what is helping me to integrate ecstasy as I met it at Esalen.
For readers unaware, Esalen is a learning center, located in Big Sur, California, and founded in 1962 for the study of “emergent transformation and internal exploration” (according to the Institute’s website). When the Institute was first established, this had much to do with psychological inquiry. The room where I stayed is named after Abraham Maslow. Today, there are many offerings there for retreats and workshops on all manner of topics: yoga, meditation, trauma work, plant medicine, sacred sexuality, sound healing, and some disciplines born at Esalen (Gestalt therapy, Esalen massage, and 5Rhythms, to name a few). Maybe sometime I’ll do a post on Esalen, but this is not that time…
The 5Rhythms Dance
I have been dancing 5Rhythms every week for three years, in a local group in Santa Barbara, in person, on Zoom, wherever we need to be to keep each other safe and supported through the pandemic days. Among the various movement practices I do (yoga most days, hiking and running several times a week if I can get out there), 5Rhythms is the one I have in recent months found most medicinal, the most cathartic, bearer of the highest insights.
I believe this to be the case because this practice is a balance of discipline and improvisation. There is enough structure, and enough guidance from a teacher to keep me on track and in a movement journey with concrete stages, but the particular shapes my body takes along that journey are mine to determine. They are alchemically manifest from the unique convergence of life events, muscular flexibility, emotional tone, and mental activity I show up with that day. But I always show up, even when I don’t feel like it (those days turn out to be the best days).
The principle is simple: dance from the guidance of your breath and intuitive motion to music arranged in five basic rhythms that travel cyclically in a wave, in the following manner, inspired by Gabrielle’s observation of the patterns of the waves crashing against the rocks as viewed from the grounds of Esalen:
Flow: like the gathering of a wave, shift the weight in the feet, curl the momentum, breed and build energy into the limbs.
Staccato: the wave meets the “rocks” – express, with the chest and the hips and the knees and elbows, the angles of the body that define space. Thrusting, stops and starts are the name of the game with this one.
Chaos: the crash, the explosion of water into air. The rivers of the mind tumble into the limbs and cause them to shake and twirl and resound with spontaneous movement. The key: keeping the feet grounded, fully release the head, if you can (if you are beginning, do this slowly, and build strength in your neck muscles over time). Allow the eyes to transmit their rays all around the space. Allow the particles of motion in your limbs to burst in energetic pulses.
Lyrical: the white sea foam, the birthplace of the love goddess herself…give your limbs to the dance, expand into a lightness that can only come after the explosion. Extend the limbs in generosity, in gratitude for the impermanence and the ways we are shaped and re-shaped. Light on the toes, ride the euphoria, from endorphins, or even oxytocin…
Stillness: the mist, barely perceptible, rising to enter the atmosphere, our nostrils, blending with the waters of our bodies. Keep moving – that’s the secret, and the essence. Allow for gentle movements of integration that rise steadily and gently. Feel all you can – it is easiest here to escape into thought, or numbness.
And then we start again…
Dionysus: My First Ecstatic Dance Teacher
When I was completing my doctoral work in London, I auditioned for a student production of Euripides’ Bacchae. I was terrible at the choreographed dance component, but was told that my ecstatic improvisation was what they were looking for. Though, at the end of the day, if your dance can’t follow the set instructions, it won’t get you to the stage, and I didn’t make the call-back.
But that audition awakenedsome energetic substance within me that felt like too much to contain in a body, but that thrived in a body. A friend and I had drinks afterward and I sat there giggling, while he laughed in my face and called me a bacchant, a follower of Dionysus, because my eyes were shining a little too brightly. I felt it was the dance. My dance. And since then I got brave enough to try ecstatic dance (a bit too freeform for me), then 5Rhythms.
The Esalen Workshop: And What Is There to Integrate?
This workshop involved five days of dancing, mindfulness meditation, and some partner and group work, under the guidance of Lucia Horan, lifelong student of Gabrielle Roth. Lucia is a master teacher: assiduous, present, disciplined, magnanimous, principled, with a ready sense of humor, and an earnest willingness to further her already very impressive profile of study with Buddhist and mindfulness meditation teachers as well as movement practitioners. I have great respect for the way she can maintain safety for the participants in the workshop to encounter themselves in the vulnerability of authentic movement with kindness and curiosity. She can transform a space of inertia (Day 3 and we were all exhausted and complaining of sore this and that) into a space of vibrant movement drawn simply from the dancers’ newfound readiness to ask the feet for more energy from the earth to move the waters of the body like the waves on the deep.
There were around thirty of us, fully vaccinated and lab-tested negative for COVID as per the current restrictions, dancing together in an outdoor pavilion.
Some of us had not danced for decades. Some had never heard of 5Rhythms and simply wanted to come to Esalen. Some like myself are old (or old-ish) hands. But there we all were, moving together, weaving in and out of each other, miraculous in the context of the pandemic, a calculated risk that felt in that moment like the most precious ordinary miracle I had perceived in a long time.
Over the five days I got to know each person’s style, their unique way of skipping, or gliding, or shuffling across the floor. I came to appreciate the myriad of ways to shake the hands, bob the head, recruit facial expressions. I got to dance in partners, in fours, by myself in the middle of the group, in the throes of chaos. I got to dance my interpretation of another dancer’s chosen “medicine word”.
Although we danced quite exuberantly, there were almost no collisions. This really surprised me, and heartened me in its suggestions for the movements of life: it is possible to dance one’s own dance, pursue one’s own intrinsic goals and passions for movement, and not compete with others for space. Maybe that’s the point. But it only seems possible with constant flow, movement of the feet. This allows the brain to become relaxed, elastic, maintaining a balance of proprioceptive self-awareness and spontaneous movement. The nervous system relaxes and the head and the limbs begin to swing with the feet, offering themselves over to what feels right to be moved.
As Lucia says, allow the feet to lead you, and the heart and mind will follow.
And where does ecstasy come into all of this? Gabrielle Roth called the space of ecstasy “where the dancer disappears and the dance remains”, or the experience of the “silver desert” (both quotes introduced by Lucia in the course of the training).
Now, I have some difficulty attributing my understanding of “ecstasy” or “standing outside oneself” to the practice of 5Rhythms. It seems to me that unlike other forms of ecstatic dance, 5Rhythms is meant to be an embodied, not a disembodied movement experience, where the body is put in charge and the mind observes the flow of energy and emotions in the body through the rhythms.
But regardless of the words I use to describe it, the experience of the workshop, and Esalen generally was transformative. Communal eating (the best food), communal bathing in sulphuric mineral baths, the migration of whales and monarch butterflies, the moonset over the water in rays of silver (the silver desert?), the scents of the herb garden, the life-affirming conversations with the people around me, their bodies and voices…
And Esalen has a way about it…intentions seem to carry some extra weight, shame-ridden self-talk gets sloughed away by the sulphur in the baths (the main “message” I received from the baths and the ocean was “let problem x take care of itself”). The place seems to draw special attention to the everyday synchronicities, splendors, and griefs that are probably always present and available, yet somehow difficult to perceive every day…
As for Integration
Lucia did the first part with us, facilitating exercises of closure: movement repetitions symbolizing opening and closure of contact with one another; a circle of acknowledgement of the elders in the workshop; a walking meditation on birth-life-death, beginning-middle-end. This all felt like essential preparation. When the final lunch service was over, I was ready to go, surprisingly: in the past I have wept in public, dragging myself away from a place where I have forged a significant bond with others in an incomprehensibly short time.
But the difference this time is that this “ecstasy” feels integratable (this should be a word).
And as for my own self-directed integration, this is what I have done. Perhaps the principles are relevant to others making their way back from an impactful, temporary way of life:
Self-awareness: observing the flow of sensation, thought, feeling, and practicing self-acceptance.
Awareness of others: maybe not everyone (including you, dear reader) wants to hear about my ecstatic dance journey. ‘Tis important to know when the conversation about the experience is getting in the way of the immediacy of connection. Knowing when to speak and when to listen is a good general tip.
Diet: keeping some dietary features I found at Esalen: little dairy (coconut yogurt, matcha tea with oat milk) and almost no gluten; more animal protein than I normally eat. Not sure how long I’ll keep this up – probably a week or so.
Movement: I have been doing short 5Rhythms waves in my living room, along with yoga, and some good swaying, shifting the weight from foot to foot, when I feel the urge – this has been the most interesting enduring habit so far.
Nature: hiking, or quiet morning walks; observing the birth-life-death principle in action – the coyote scat and vulture activity on and around the trails.
Journaling: so many insights make themselves known on those hikes…
Music: Gabrielle Roth’s trance music, because it’s pretty great for all activities.
Friends and family: making time to keep in touch with my dearest ones.
Mythologizing: listening to the stories that tend my newly-watered soul. My current favorite is How to Love a Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the newest addition to my self-prescribed love curriculum. See my previous post on NYE for more on thattopic…
5Rhythms-ing with my local group
Keeping the link with the Dionysian, or the essence of whoever my current patron god/divine reference point might be in the coming days.
That’s all I got. But it’s important. The dance is powerful. The group is precious. Timeless and time-limited. A configuration of people that will likely never occur again. That last dance with them left me with the word I spoke in the closing circle, when we each offered the word that reflected the lesson with which we chose to depart:
like the dance, like the waves, like the bodies of the monarchs that lay on the path in front of us while their fellows flitted above our heads,
This post is dedicated especially to anyone else spending NYE solo.
I went to catch the sunset today, but arrived just in time for the afterglow, bounding toward the bluffs just to show the silent eucalyptus forest I had made the effort to farewell the orb I take for granted on other days.
This New Year’s Eve, 2021, is a rather special one for me, because I am spending it alone, and on some level confronting my now-irrational fear of this I have cultivated for a long time.
It’s been a fine day, actually.
I’ve been for a run, and a long walk along streets with still-falling leaves and agaves bedazzled with dew, out to the diamond-speckled ocean. I’ve been for a yoga class in the park, sent loving messages to friends and kin, found resolution with someone dear to my tenderized heart.
I finished and submitted to an academic journal an article based on research I began in Fall of 2019, when I had little more than a general curiosity about the symptoms of women’s ritual ecstasy in Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae.
Also today I received word that my abstract for aconference paper I am preparing on gender, ecstatic vision, and cognition in Greek tragedy has been accepted, so the next stage of this research project is already calling out to me.
And having taken very little time off from work these holidays, I am preparing to visit the fabled land of Esalen for an ecstatic dance workshop in the New Year.
So, it seems that ecstasy is becoming rather something of a specialty of mine!
I am also preparing to teach subjects that keep my heart open and my mind sharp, and working with students who inspire me with their dedication to and intrinsic passion and motivation for their studies. My family and friends are healthy, and I am very fortunate in my family and friends.
These reflections all feel like helpful bridges of gratitude and abundance carrying me over this ravine that NYE always seems to create, and into a new year of promise.
But why are these bridges required?
It is easy to say, “well, NYE is just another day, and it will be just another day tomorrow.” This is one (rather flimsy) bridge I have constructed, along with more elaborate others: planning parties with friends, making labor-intensive meals, or queuing up my favorite films to re-watch.
These all feel like strategies to forestall something, because when I have participated in them in the past I have found it difficult to be very present for any of them, while the cultural pressure is on to do something exciting, set intentions, kiss the right person, arrange for the first one over your threshold in the New Year is an auspicious presence, all in record time, before we reach midnight. It has always felt foreboding, like attending a wake before a memorial service, or before the death has even occurred. I think some years of the people who may have listened to the musicians play on the Titanic that fateful night, watching the water rise as we watch the clock.
I know, grim reflections, but these are the feelings that I seem to work so hard to avoid every year. The void. The recognition of the losses. Globally, the staggering losses to human and non-human life due to the pandemic, escalating natural disasters, police violence, school shootings, military coups, and other devastating events, and personally, the dreams that were not realized, the relationships that faltered. Marital dissolution.
I thought of this incongruently while making an indulgent meal for myself: fancy “mac and cheese” with cream, Gruyere, sautéed brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and chestnuts, and a kale salad that most of my friends probably hate by now because I make it so frequently, but I love (except when I aspirate the kale as apparently is a tendency for me…).
Nourishing my body with good, tasty food and plenty of “healthy”, non-competitive exercise (yoga, dance, hiking) has been paramount to my sanity during the pandemic, especially as I live alone. But sometimes I get rather rigid about it, bent on caring for myself in the way only I can. Several times I have asked myself why I feel the need to cook something so challenging on a given evening. Why not just make eggs? Because it shows a lack of self-worth, a lack of dedication to self-care.
There is something about the phrase “you are enough”, one of the millions of affirmations constantly circulating on the social media accounts I follow from various wellness practitioners and teachers that really gave me pause tonight.
It somehow broke through my cooking frenzy, the effort to plan an “alternative” solo NYE of yoga, film-viewing, intention-and-gratitude-list-generation, and all the rest.
So now I am here writing this.
The plain, and somehow all-encompassing satisfaction of “You are enough” allowed me to feel the weight of sadness this evening, to begin to accept its visitation and ask why it must be present, if I have so many things to be happy about.
This might sound cliché, but it is an insight I keep returning to, and a vivifying one at that.
To live is to burn, to long, to be in love. Sadness is the unfulfilled, or the lost, as I have learned from my favorite poets: Rumi, Hafiz, Sappho, Catullus, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickenson, and so many others.
Sadness means fundamentally that I am a lover.
When I think on it, this is really the number one vocation I would choose for my life.
Some loves I am good at fostering within myself. I readily fall in love with cities and flavors and spaces that shelter and direct human movement (train stations, churches, cafes, theaters). I fall in love with buoyant seas whose grains of salt have coated my scalp. I fall for languages, and their built-in views of human nature I did not know existed. And I love hands (both physical hands and the writing they yield). I fall for the oldest cemetery when I am new to a city – I visit there and thank the ancestors for hosting me. There is no city I have visited that has not charmed me with the quirks of its personality I have managed to find in a park, a museum, or a pastry. I love the wild as well, which is in all things and all people.
And the body, not just mine, the body – I love its generosity of movement, the limbs’ readiness to receive the signals from the brain: Dance! Walk! Kiss! Hold the door for that person! This I fall for, especially when I run my fingers over the vertebrae in my spine and remember that these will by far outlast the flesh and connective tissue that holds them and enlivens them.
It’s people – not friends or family or colleagues, or even strangers with whom I exchange a smile on the street – but the other, the object of amor I find to be the difficult kind of love, hence the reason it plagues ballads, paintings, tragic plays, teen journal entries. When it happens it is hard not to pay attention to the sadness. That kind of love is an ecstasy, an experience of standing outside of oneself in the presence of the beloved other, merging with them, allowing your pillars of self-protection to fall, and when they leave, whether for a day or forever, you are back in your body, shivering. It feels so cold, but you remember having this body before meeting the person, and you will adjust to it after their departure. It just might take some time, and that’s okay.
The act of loving, really loving anything is not the avoidance, but the acceptance of sadness. And for those philosopher types, according to Socrates (as transmitted in Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and other dialogues), love is the desire for the form that is the imitation, the shadow of formless beauty and truth. But it is okay to be in love with forms, because they teach us about the art of truth-seeking, and the appreciation of beauty in all things.
And so tonight I will of course open the tiny bottle of Chandon I bought. I will indulge myself with a film, some chanting, some journaling.
But overall, I will ask my heart what it wants to love, what loves it wants to remember, to let go of, to invite in. That feels right, this New Year’s Eve.
May formless Love itself, ready to infuse all of my life, be the first foot I welcome through my door New Year’s Day. And may it visit you as well.
Here’s to the turning of the New Year, from my hearth to yours!
If there were ever a year’s beginning that invited us to pursue the most compelling intentions…
The Muses have not been completely silent, but murmuring at a lower volume, simply listening to the songs others hurl so courageously into the world.
Yes, in the usual fashion, I am envious as much as I stand in admiration of my beloved friends’ accomplishments this year, accomplishments that I read as more impressive or valuable than my own. Yet, this year unlike others I find that I am not envious or admiring of the accomplishments themselves, but of the courage and diligence it takes to bring them forth.
Today I read my initial notes from four years ago about the book I wanted to finish in a year’s time. A book about women from Greek tragedy, and what they teach us.
The intention to take on this question was earnest, but resulted in my waffling over the moral rectitude, and relative toxicity of this project, an anxiety with which I would not cease to assail friends, family, and even an Anglican priest, until I backed away, slowly, and stopped writing for awhile.
Women who kill their lovers, their children, themselves. Women who poison, lie, lay plots for the destruction of innocents, pry the supports of social order apart with their teeth. What can they teach that is of constructive value, especially in the current climate of recovering social unity?
“Ought we to rehabilitate them?”, I once heard a woman ask at an Emily Hauser lecture at University College London, as if she was tiptoeing around the cage of an aggressive pit-bull. Emily Hauser, as I recall, voiced that she was not soon intending to deliver an answer to this in her retellings of the more straightforwardly heroic Greek mythic women.
This of course galvanized my curiosity about my project again, and confronted me with the question: If we seek to rehabilitate Medea, Clytemnestra, or Phaedra, and to deprive them of their actions on the grounds that these were invented by the patriarchy and are of no help to us other than securing the legacy of the patriarchy and the vilification of female agency….
What happens to us? What happens to the story? What happens to the human experiences these women carry for us?
Thus, I renew this old intention for the New Year. To explore this question with renewed rigor, and borrow some courage from my friends who have modelled it so well for me this year in their own pursuits.
I know that Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic argues quite convincingly from her own remarkable brushes with this truth, that the Muses will cease to sing to a would-be creator who will not in haste take their song and bring it to the world. The Muses will find another whose initiative is greater.
Yes, this may well be the case. Someone out there may be crafting their Acknowledgements page for this book that needed to be written, and, having read their Gilbert, they may well write, “Thank you to the anonymous person who ignored the call so I could take this on”. Yes, another may be off and running, or even crossing the finish line with the baton. And if that is the case?
I would still pursue it for the sake of discovery itself, from my own efforts, and for the pleasure and adventure of meeting those in academia, in the arts, in the act of living, who share my curiosity.
Indeed, one explorer’s summit of Everest does not stop countless mountaineers from doing the same. A woman’s giving birth does not stop another from bearing a child (yes, a silly analogy, but I am keeping it!). Even one author’s publication of a book about a girl who turns into an earthworm should not stop another from writing a book on the same topic, because these could be told in very different ways, for very different audiences, and yes we do need more stories like this!
This is my intention, then, to harness the big or small magic available to explore the still-compelling question I have for these infamous tragic women. Why do you exist? What are you here to teach me if I listen?
If there were ever a year to declare the intentions that call the heart, but which previously seemed ridiculous, grandiose, and/or unfashionable, I suppose this year has opened up new vistas of possibility as much as it has educated us globally on impermanence, and unsustainable patterns of treating one another, and the planet.
And what are your heretofore seemingly too immense/grandiose/awkward intentions? What are the areas of curiosity that are uniquely and intrinsically yours?
I’d love to hear some of those stories of courageous journeying in 2021!
Sending my own intention out in the hopes to kindle others’ pursuit of the curiosities that goad them, as the wind carries the clouds across the sky, or the waves guide the surfers toward the shore!
Gratitude for lessons of 2020
This pandemic period has afforded me over the past months a real time for growth, of the ordinary sort. Thankfully my family and I have been safe from the virus and have had the luxury to work from home, and to do our part to stem the spread by living a quiet life, not traveling, not hosting or attending gatherings (apart from those over Zoom), and taking the long-view that these efforts now will pay off in future.
So, in my more closely circumscribed world, I have grown in the kinds of incremental mastery that do not sound like much, but have challenged me in crucial ways:
Moving into my own space (above), small but manageable, and adorned with the instinctual, fundamental meanings of a hearth and a home, one I anticipate occupying for more than a year, after 14 consecutive years of moving from place to place.
Meaningful work, and an investment in my work community. I work in academic administration and teach Greek myth to graduate students at an institution with a philosophy steeped in depth psychological approaches. The faculty of my department has been unbelievably supportive in welcoming my philological and classical reception studies take on mythology teaching, accompanied by my complicated relationship of scepticism and intense curiosity about depth psychological lenses. My students have refreshed my interest in the mysteries therein.
Living close to family, and supporting my parents through their own life changes with food, laughter and a bit of yoga here and there.
Tending friendships and community relationships, and keeping in touch. Still more work to do here, but I am improving!
Cooking, baking, and nourishing myself and those I love with joyfully prepared meals – cooking has been immensely grounding for me, now a devoted student of chefs with passion and flair: Yotam Ottolenghi, Roopa Gulati, Diana Henry, Meera Sodha, Samin Nosrat, Nigel Slater, and others.
Writing for the sake of writing, and sharing: writing fiction for the first time, and poems to process the events of this year, and sharing with my prose with my wonderful critique group, and my poetry with my community of creatives from Oxford, who have been my north star.
Here’s to lessons learned, poems written, and dishes cooked (the NYE feast of beef in red wine with Barolo), and may many more follow! In some ways 2020 has been my happiest year to date.
The Last Reflections of 2020 in Haiku
Writing poetry for me means listening and giving musical voice to me truth, which delivers itself unto me with its own cadence that shakes the boundaries of my understanding, and tends my soul.
Reading poetry always leaves me changed in some way, and able to recognize myself better in another way. It also brings me into immediate and intimate contact with another person, the one who wrote and so generously shared their world with me.
The COVID crisis has been a poem – it has had its refrain of social distancing that has come to the fore in greater and lesser ways, and has yielded stanzas of adherence and dissolution. What is so achingly human as the vacillation between upholding and relaxing moral principles? What is so achingly human as to long for physical immediacy, amidst the online company we have grown used to keeping?
What is the last thought before sleep this New Year’s Eve? Mine is what I love most about a poem that speaks to me.
On the New Moon in Taurus, the time is here for rediscovering the simple, manifest parts of ourselves cradled within the sensory landscape of Nature’s consistency and reliable movements amidst the changes that have engulfed us all during the greater period of Pluto/Jupiter/Saturn stellium bridging Capricorn and Aquarius that signals the uprooting of the institutions whose integrity we took for granted, for the sake of some necessary greater evolution…
Earth Day 2020 is an enforced observance.
I grew up in the California coastal city where in 1969 following a huge oil spill off the coast, the call began for designating a day to celebrate the Earth as mother divine, and rally advocacy for her survival in the face of human threats. In recent years I have witness the Earth Day festival grow out of grassroots to a showcase of industries supporting the environment: organic food truck dining, permaculture demos, booths administering CBD samples and selling hemp clothing and seaglass jewelry, walk-throughs of tiny houses and displays of what green living looks like in the 21st century, Teslas on display, representatives from local environmental groups educating the public and collecting petition signatures, and the alcoholic kombucha tents and stages with bands seeking to raise the public consciousness and appreciation of Our Mother.
This year I understood that these reminders of our interconnectedness with nature become mere trappings if we do not devote ourselves to conscious action for the sake of the environment regularly. Some of these trappings even fly in the face of the health of Earth: for instance, the insistence on consuming coffee with yak butter from the Himalayas, or eating quinoa that has been grown by large-scale industry where local farming populations are suffering, or eating almond butter produced in regions prone to drought, or flying 2,000+ miles to the Amazon for an ayahuasca retreat, as if there were only one substance in nature that could aid our self-understanding if we ingest it, bypassing the generations of shamans that were traditionally designated in many indigenous communities as those who could drink from the cup and commune with the plant spirit world, while Greta Thunberg will not board a plane.
Yes, I am feeling quite critical of the trappings, and also guilty of wearing them (well, not the ayahuasca piece – but I do practice forms of yoga traditionally reserved for the brahmins) at the expense of the environment itself.
Our growing edges as an environmentally-conscious community are many.
But of all the things we try to do and try to be seen doing to help Our Mother, She has taught me this Earth Day that I am doing the best I can to help her right now.
Now that we are in enforced isolation from each other, we are in greater communion with Nature, and are understanding that she doesn’t take very long to catch on to our lack of interference, and goes about accomplishing in a matter of weeks the goals for species protection and ozone health and clean waterways on which we have been struggling for years to gain purchase.
And we are like my neighbor’s robot sculpture clad with a mask, held back from normative behaviors, stalled and voiceless by the realization that we are not masters of nature; that we are a part of her body.
This work on “The Nature of Things” is a didactic poem, a teaching poem that celebrates Venus Genetrix, Nature herself, that births and destroys, builds up and breaks down and builds up again in ever-resilient resourcefulness. Also, if you are critical of organized religion and the ways in which it challenges our communion with nature, you might well enjoy this work! Also, if you are interested in ancient atomic theory, there are some marvellous sections on the relationship between the two essential entities Lucretius claims underpin the natural world: form and formlessness, or atoms and the void (the space in which they move).
I would like to read Lucretius and thus experience a state of ataraxia, the Epicurean freedom from fear and pain in the mind that comes from rejection of religion and superstition and acceptance of the fundamental, mechanistic forces of nature that are ever-present in nature, but that’s a lot of conditions, and I do like my astrology, and God.
But the reading is not what does it for me these days.
It is breathing the outside air and hearing wild sounds. Finding new, rich colors in the ridges of the mountains, and cultivating awe at the visibility of the islands off the coast, as if they have drifted closer to the land. Walking through the neighborhood and hearing families talking and laughing, seeing a woman dancing in her living room, a couple sitting out on their deck drinking wine. Smelling jasmine, rosemary, honeysuckle, the gritty scent of pine. When walking yesterday I felt big shapes start to shift against one another in my customary perception of the world and the wild, and as I reached the crest of the hill near my house, I had come so far away from the narrow channels of linear thinking and traveling without really hearing and seeing the world around me that I began to fear the consequences of spending too much time in that expansive presence of mind and heart.
I realized in this radical and spontaneous mindfulness practice that the yoga I practice is often just as linear as all else I do, paying lip-service to presence and mindfulness through a rigorous program of physical postures that have a “peak”, an end, a telos. And the mental experience attendant to this has been having it in my mind that I am being present and mindful more than having the felt experience of such.
Last night I sat on the deck with my cat Toby and watched him listen to the birds. He teaches me that life can evolve a little from day to day, that life is evolving from day to day beyond the static projections of my mind, in imperceptible ways. Especially as Toby is a new member of the household as of last August, he teaches me to ask questions about why we are accustomed to do or think about things in this way or that way. Sometimes I have an answer. Often I don’t.
The considerable tragedy that remains for our own species is that millions around the world have lost their jobs, the source of their livelihoods and vocations now deemed “unessential” while those with essential jobs are exposing themselves to the virus every day at work, in the hospital, or the grocery store. And the rest of us have the distinct privilege of working from home and luxuriating in nature’s capacity to renew herself more quickly than we would orchestrate. And it is Nature herself that reminds us and challenges us to take care of those whom we know are struggling.
We are all forced to become shut-ins, observers, students of Nature. We are all forced onto the fringes because there is no center of normative behavior and interaction. And thus there are no designated retreat centers we can visit to find ourselves in nature. There are just the circumstances that have brought us to this place. The centers of our orbit prior to our hibernation. And it certainly is a once-in-a-lifetime chance we have to reflect on the centrality of those things in our lives, and how they may have at times stopped us from remembering:
We are ever in Nature, and we are ever part of Nature.
Happy Earth Day (Earth Year, as it is quickly becoming)!
Do settle in: this is a long read, but all we have is time these days, after all…?
I. A Lecture on the End of Time in a Theatre Soon to Close
Eleven days ago, before the tyranny of a pandemic virus would take hold over California, I took my dad out for a birthday dinner at a new Thai place in town, and then to a lecture from Columbia University Professor and leading string theorist Brian Greene. It was a full house of people eager to hear Greene’s position on the “end of time”: Does this exist? If so, how will it happen? How does human history figure into the end of the universe?
Greene proceeded to give a bombastic lecture, with elaborate animations and soundscapes, of the circumstances leading up to the end of time, which manifested themselves in a complex relationship between dynamics of Entropy (disorder), Evolution, and Eternity.
According to Greene, the extinction of humanity “from one thing or another” would happen well before the earth would fall into the dark, dead sun, and black holes would suck up matter until there would be none left and then collapse in on themselves. The end of all existence would follow the final bit of entropy that is released upon the act of the generation of a final thought…only for some of those entropic particles to meet eventually somewhere in the void and become something, leading to (eventually) a new Big Bang, a new expanding universe, a new Earth (or Earth-ish thing), and all the rest of it in a great, meta-cosmic cycle.
Now, if I had been quick enough to line up behind all the eager physicists jostling for a turn with the mic during the Q&A, I would have asked, “why is thought the final thing to precede nothingness, followed by eventual somethingness?” Why couldn’t that thing be anything else? A cat, or a book, or a bottle of whiskey? Perhaps for Greene, thought is just a placeholder for whatever the final thing is. Perhaps he is extending a consolation prize to the creationists after claiming that there is no intelligent design, or designer in the universe, by presuming that in the end (and thus in the beginning) was logos (word, thought) after all.
Perhaps, as was his consistent refrain when he rounded up a not-completely-resolved point in the talk, or when his querents asked too complicated a question, you just have to read my new book.
II. If We Know Nature, Can We Control Her?
This is a question that comes to me in the present circumstances, when many worldwide are stuck at home watching the increasingly harrowing news about more cases and more deaths, or otherwise in grocery stores, panic-buying pasta and toilet paper, even when our world leaders say that the supply chains are still solid. They say that if we shut ourselves up in our houses, the virus will burn itself out in its failure to find new hosts within a few months.
Do we know better? Are our mathematical models and social distancing strategies superior to the instincts of a virus that has no cognition (as far as we know)?
It was not Greene’s claim about the lack of intelligent design of the universe; nor his assertion that we have no free will because our constituent particles determine our actions; nor even his postulation that, if particles by natural succession make predictable patterns in structure, there might be a floating brain structure identical to his own brain out in space, thinking the same thoughts as he is and imagining that it is a human, giving a lecture in front of hundreds of people when actually it is a floating brain – it was none of these claims that I found most arresting.
It was one graph he showed us that demonstrated the accuracy of mathematical models for determining the distribution of heat in the universe (as was confirmed by observable readings), and his comment that, “See, we can make these mostly reliable calculations, and we have some control.”
Control of the natural world through understanding, I assumed he meant, so that science becomes not merely a means of knowing through observation, but a means of using the language of mathematics to penetrate the cosmos with incisive predictions about the end of all life, matter, and time. [Yes, he did concede that mathematics may indeed not be the only, or the best language available to us to know, in the Q&A].
This presumption to know irritated me, and I rather begrudged him this statement that night. I asked Venus Genetrix, Nature herself, to disprove his predictions, to keep her mysteries fully intact. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose…
But then I realized that I habitually look to establish a similar sense of “control” in my own research. I study Greco-Roman literature and myth, and my colleagues and I often presume to know, to have some control over (our understanding of) these cultures, and the function of stories therein. I too like to give the logos of thought and analysis presiding importance, rather than to let the object of my thought stand for itself and remain resolutely unanalyzed.
As interested as we in that lecture theatre were not two weeks ago in what the end of time will look like, this week we would all like to know when we will even be able to enter a theatre again, when things will return to normal, and at what human price. This knowledge, this control myself and innumerable others around the world would do much to redeem.
And as a yogi, the processes of “letting go”/”surrendering” to nature that we hear as stock instructions in the classes that are now live-streamed by teachers in self-isolation, ring numbly in my ears. These instructions demand a radical renunciation of my own acute experience of needing nature to be more predictable, to follow our well-researched strategies for its containment.
When things are most at stake, the real yoga begins, and asks us whether the question, “Do we have control?” is the most important one.
III. The Control We Have?
It is the first day of spring. Day 1 of the California Governor’s stay-at-home order, whose end has yet to be determined.
The world has changed so rapidly in the last few months that we have had no choice but to live under the reign of this new, invisible power, a respiratory disease that has become a global pandemic. People have died, and continue to perish by the thousands in the hardest hit countries: Italy, China, Iran, Spain. The California governor predicts that 56% of Californians could contract the virus, unless we all undergo prolonged, rigorous self-isolation.
Many of us can work from home, but many of us cannot work at all, have no choice but to apply for unemployment insurance. Those who work in the arts, entertainment, hospitality, travel, and especially airline industries are the worst affected. Many countries have closed their borders.
The landlords cannot evict their tenants, residential or commercial. The schools and libraries are closed. Most of the courts are closed. The restaurants are open only for take-out. The grocery stores are packed with shoppers who deplete the pasta shelves and the meat counter before noon.
This enforced isolation began as mere social distancing (maintaining a distance of six feet from another person) in public places and transmuted itself into the complete desertion of public places.
And now, we do everything at home: see friends virtually, work remotely, take live-streamed yoga classes, watch a lot of Netflix, play board games, (hopefully) have lots of fulfilling sex and deep discussions. And the end of this is indefinite.
When I watch television or films these days, I feel as if I am on a long-haul flight. I watch people out in the world, engaging in social activities that I must wait to experience again. Until we’ve reached some destination of normalcy.
I find that the biggest impact this phase in world history has dealt me is the realization of our human connectivity, the understanding that for the first time in my life, death has a common face globally, a coronavirus. At the same time I and many others practice an anthrocentrism that balks at the splendor of the natural world that lies beyond our shut windows. Why does nature not see what is happening to us? Why do the trees still dance in the wind, and the bees fill the lavender bushes and the winking stars of Orion continue to float somewhere past my roof?
Yet for some, this current situation carries few new perspectives, or existential quandaries.
When walking past a new build in my neighborhood, where a large contingent of the builders are of Latinx descent, I overheard two blonde women who were surveying the building project and reflecting on their own experiences as overseers of home improvement works. One of them said, “My girlfriend Lori and I share Santos…well, I shouldn’t say we share him. He works for her six days a week”.
Shortly after this, I heard a young man frustratedly shouting into his phone, “Can’t he and I just split the fee? I said I was interested in this role, and now he goes to the fucking company about it?!”
The anxieties of work, politics, and the everyday violence of belittling, racist objectification of others somehow still prevails in the midst of Nature’s appeal to us all to wake up.
Assuming that Nature is intelligent.
IV. Making Meaning in the Madding Maelstrom: Some Attempts
Dr. Greene delivered his talk not two weeks ago at a theatre that is now shut. And now no one can sit at the counter at the Thai restaurant in the bustling public market.
The restaurants and coffee shops have cleared out all their tables. A big void in front of the counter gapes open, and people swirl around there in an invisible vortex, giving each other a wide berth, looking nervously over their shoulders as they wait for the barista to add cream to their coffee, as the self-service area has been dismantled.
At the grocery store, the meat, produce, bread, and pasta go first. Only skim milk is left. People slide past one another, nervous and smooth as electric eels, crackling with nerves. The manager stands in front of his desk, hands on hips, looking analytically and anxiously at the shoppers whose faces are pinched with scarcity, who smile nervously.
Next week I will be giving a lecture (via Zoom) on myth and multiculturalism in Pompeii to graduate students in a comparative mythology program. In the initial stage of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the city in the summer (or fall, depending on whom you ask) of 79 CE, the city experienced twelve hours of pumice fall before the pyroclastic flow hit: twelve hours of admonitory earthquakes, of the harbor being girded by a floating barrier of fallen porous volcanic rock that blocked the advance of Pliny the Elder’s rescue ships (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16). Meanwhile, people in Herculaneum, the smaller community on the other side of Vesuvius, saw the pumice falling on their neighbors in Pompeii, and may not have known that they were also in for the acute force of the pyroclastic flow that would bury their city.
Has this stay-at-home order been issued in time for the warning? The pumice fall? Has the pyroclastic flow hit? Do we have the control to anticipate when it will?
They have skipped the animal testing of the prospective vaccine for the virus and are moving to human trials, but they are still working with a timeline of approximately 18 months.
Do we have control?
In China the worst seems to be over, and they are opening the schools and the restaurants again. They are leading the navigation of this fleet of countries, sailing on with closed borders and socially distant citizens, into uncharted waters of global survival. Will there be a second wave, a new squall of disease? We are already venturing out to test this, like wildebeests that must return to the watering hole after the crocodiles that took a few of their number have sunk back below the surface…
Do we have control?
And still, Nature continues its reliable patterns. The spring storms surge. The land is green. The wildflowers are blooming in the hills. The world smells like nature’s apothecary here in California. Wild sage and sweet chaparral. The birds sing the fragrances of the plants.
Meanwhile, our loci of control are still revealed to us. My yoga practice. My Pompeii lecture. My book on Greek tragic women. My small stash of toilet paper. My practice of rigorous social distancing as a means of protecting my mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy and is most at risk from the current threat. I do not know whether my peers are observing the same measure of isolation as I am. I need to break my Lenten fast and get back on social media, I guess.
I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu before the museums closed. I took some photos of Athenian vases, Roman frescos and sculptures. I sat in the ocean-facing garden of the museum, which is built as a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri, a massive residence in Herculaneum buried under 20 meters of ash, a monument containing a library of scrolls whose words we have yet to develop the technology to read.
Another example of the word as the end and the beginning.
The Lunar New Year of the Rat and the New Moon in Aquarius. Time to think of the bigger picture. To find solutions through untried ways. To form community alliances to achieve strategic goals. To use guile to be the first animal across the river to win a place in the Chinese Zodiac. To observe nature and pour out insights which the poets and the painters and the visionaries will quaff.
What does this “big picture” (an infuriatingly obscure phrase, in my opinion) really look like? Do we assume a broad, aerial perspective of the terrain of our lives, and suspend sympathies with those who walk the roads whose trajectories we see from high above?
Is there just one big picture, one view from godlike transcendence?
Does the big picture denote the objective view? Or does it stretch the heart’s capacities for loving awareness (to use a Ram Dass-ism)?
One complicated “big picture” book
I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, The Overstory, a great opus made up of small tales, all of which carry a distinct feature of transformation involving human relationships with trees. It is Ovid’s Metamorphoses meets contemporary ecocriticism. It is a narrative ekstasis, in that it somehow stands far beyond its subjects and still looks closely at individual lives in a series of distinct moments of tender and painful intimacy. It is difficult for me to understand when I am looking at the bigger picture and when what I think is the broad view turns out to be just a lick of paint in a mural without end. I am not even a quarter of the way through, because I read and pause and digest and dream. I read before I sleep, and I dream of Nature pressing against the walls until she plunges inside. I dream about mountain lions coming in through an unresolvable gap in the sliding glass door, before they brush against me and groom themselves in the living room as if I was one of their own.
One of the stories focuses on the experiences of a man who went from playing the role of a prisoner in Zimbardo’s ill-fated Stanford Prison Experiment to serving in Nam, and then working as a ranch hand in Idaho, before drifting aimlessly westward. Aimlessly, until he found out about the clear-cutting in the national forests through which he was driving. He paid a pilot to fly him over the forest, and saw innumerable bald patches marring the green plains of Douglas Firs. His incredulity, anger, and despair transformed into a resolve that he would plant trees in those very patches of scarred earth, and trust that the new saplings would grow never to be felled, that they would survive human deforestation. That they would survive humans.
The subterranean “big picture” from Nature
Earlier this week I attended a lecture on ecopsychology, wherein my colleague giving the lecture elucidated the ways in which trees communicate with one another about environmental threats and changes. They share defense signals, even with their competitor species.
I learned about the work of University of British Columbia biologist Suzanne Simard, whose research is apparently addressed somewhere in The Overstory beyond my current place in the book. In her TEDx Talk inspired by her research published in Natureabout the communications between trees, she explains that old “mother trees” share carbon and nutrients with the younger trees in a forest, and they send extra resources to younger trees that are nutrient-poor.
“Forests are built on relationships”, Simard declares from the TED stage, claiming that complex adaptive systems such as these sophisticated communication lines are the source of resilience. These systems model mutual respect. We might wish to draw cues for human behavior from the trees, which teach that there is collective well being in the conscious sharing of information, that it is in keeping with nature to make it known when we experience stress, rather than to keep silent.
One personal Overstory: When Nature stretched open my heart
Undoubtedly it was this recent series of insights that culminated in my experience of brightened vision of nature yesterday afternoon. I was driving, thinking about things embarrassingly petty, when I saw a large carpet of wild mustard on the hillside. My whole demeanor shifted from vaguely irritated and apathetic to gobsmacked. I could not believe how beautiful the color was. And then as I continued to drive I saw deep purple, rusty red, clean and bright green, in numerous textures and arrangements of plant life, and it all converged to overwhelm me and, like a curtain drawn open I could feel the fringes of my heart stretch wide open with a kind of love that was fulfilled and unreturned at the same time.
It reminded me of the day when, at five years old, I opened my eyes after having them closed for a week following a surgery, and I noticed first the colors that seemed to crowd in and vie for my attention. My eyes were new and all the living things of the world seemed more full of life than they had ever been.
And so yesterday I caught myself, perhaps for the second time in my life, knowing the world in a loving way first and foremost.
The bigger picture revealed to me then that nothing is beyond the domain of the heart, even the material of rational objectivity which I would otherwise ascribe to the mind. This five-minute reverie when my eyes swept along the colorful vista out my car window plunged me into a continuum of what I can only call impassioned consciousness.
Omniscience and empathy in poetic beloveds, Whitman and Tempest
Whenever I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), I watch all the people he saw in the world revolve before my mind’s eye: the farmer and the soldier and the young bride and the enslaved person and the artist and the body of the drowned man and the infant at the mother’s breast and the cat prowling back gardens. All nameless, everyday archetypes for the time. All my heart’s threshing floor, the place to harvest words and sort through meanings.
In one segment, “The Sleepers”, Whitman offers a catalogue of normally socially differentiated people whose experience of sleep endows them with a shared human experience that transcends their differing levels of privilege, age, freedom and suffering:
I swear they are all beautiful,
Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,
The wildest and bloodiest is over, and all is peace.
Sleep, the blanket experience of peace and grave vulnerability, is mundane and intimate here.
Kate Tempest’s poem, “Lionmouth Doorknocker” in her album Let Them Eat Chaos (2016) hands the listener off to a series of one-lined vignettes of people in the city in the daytime:
The workers watch the clocks
Fiddle with their Parker pens
While the grandmothers
Haggle with the market men
Then she plunges us into the intimate acquaintance of those few people who are awake in the depths of early morning, and are not the beautiful ones at peace, as in Whitman’s world.
It’s 04:18 AM
At this very moment, on this very street
Seven different people in seven different flats
Are wide awake, they can’t sleep
Now, of all these people, in all these houses
Only these seven are awake
And they shiver in the middle of the night
Counting their sheepish mistakes
Is anybody else awake?
Will it ever be day again?
Are these people more wretched because they are at the mercy of their thoughts, or because they cannot see that their experience is shared? Because they do not know about the networks of roots that run from tree to tree, from person to person, when we share pain and share the resources to cope? Because they do not see the big picture?
The pictures the Sleepers (don’t) see
Do the peaceful dreamers see the bigger picture of their own waking circumstances, and find peace therein?
Not here will I attempt to defend the validity of reporting dreams, and ascribing truth to them. But undeniably dreams do offer a different kind of vision, from which we create story, association, and meaning, as we do in waking life. And in the following example from my own catalogue of recent dreams, there is an aspect of seeing, or failing to see, which I feel is somehow related to the issue of perspective addressed in this blog entry: And yes, there is self-indulgence in dream-telling, but also in blog-writing and painting and playwrighting and any creative work.
I had an appointment with someone wise, and to visit this person I went up a marble staircase, which ended at a landing with corridors leading to the right and left, where stood, respectively, statues of a man in 18th-century Anglo-American dress (long coat, buckled shoes, stockings, breeches, and a cravat) and a woman who looked like an image of Venus, with her draped clothing gathered around her hips. Her hair was loose and tumbled wildly over her shoulders and her breasts, and a snake slithered up her torso, its tail pointing down between her hip bones and its head lost somewhere in her hair. I took the path to the right, past the statue of the man, because those were the instructions I had been given. At the end of the corridor I reached an empty gallery, in what I knew to be the British Museum. A huge crowd of people was milling around, pausing at intervals to look at the bare walls, as if there were fascinating exhibits there. I could see nothing, and this terrified me. Then a harried old man in an orange suit shuffled toward me, telling me he had been waiting for me, that I must come with him. His speech was rapid and pressured, and I feared him. He was not the one I had come to meet. I ran back down the stairs and he ran after me. I got to the bottom of the staircase and he could go no further.
Somehow I cannot content myself simply to appreciate the paradox, the irresolvable complexity between the bigger picture and the small, tender lives it encapsulates. To watch myself and others, dreaming or waking, attempt to see a broader, impartial view, and come up against the occupation hazard of having a body, and immediate circumstances that intrude upon this enlightened perspective.
But I do not say this with cynicism. For me, the ecstasy of jet-setting subjectivity is endlessly fascinating.
Aquarius takes the aerial, broad, outside-of-the-box view, and at the New Moon, grand schemes are birthed out of the known metrical workings of the world. But Aquarius is also a fixed air sign. To look out from behind the eyes of the individual is not the habit of Aquarius, but Leo, its counterpoint and opposite sign, which also fixes itself in habitual perspectives.
But to integrate the poles of this opposition, and to honor the different modes of seeing oneself and the outside, to remember that big and small abide in the heart, to recognize visions, dreams, and feelings, and to understand their comings-and-goings within oneself and others, like the wind through the trees – that might be the best practice I can follow in this Lunar New Year.
Because when I read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, or listen to the first track from Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos, (“Picture a Vacuum”), I know that the broad view makes my heart pummel its cage no less than does the narrow.
Behold, we have passed into a new year, and a new decade, and whether or not we have readied ourselves with new intentions/goals/resolutions, many of us (at least on the social media front) see this as an opportune time for memorializing the state of our lives ten years ago, as compared to our lives today.
I was touched by the self-compassion that pervades people’s descriptions of their former selves, especially in the midst of challenges. A wonderful way to start the New Year – to witness the narrative of one’s life compassionately, and to be kind and charitable to oneself.
The New Year carries with it a powerful collective wave of intentionality for manifestation of visionary intentions, and it is a good time for affirmation of one’s current stage(s) of personal journeying.
Mapping my own experience onto the mythological and the archetypal has always been fun and illuminating. It gives daily life a real sense of poetic significance. It reminds me that every person has an extraordinary set of circumstances that comprise their own unique mythos, whether known or unknown to me. This practice, really more an occupational hazard of studying Greco-Roman myth for many years, rarely fails to give me a valuable perspective on life situations, regularly assures me of the universally lived experience of challenges that feel difficult to bear in isolation, and gives me agency in re-casting my own story.
One Model of Personal Mythmaking: The Hero’s Journey
I work at an institution that prides itself on its collection of artifacts from Joseph Campbell, the famed comparative mythologist who traced the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey that he claimed pervaded mythological and folkloric traditions internationally. In his book Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell structures the hero’s journey around three key stages, paraphrased here:
Call to adventure (including meeting a mentor who guides the hero on the initial stages of the quest).
Trials of initiation into a new world of challenges, triumphs and failures, a phase which culminates in a journey to the Underworld and meeting a teacher with a prophetic message.
Return to the place of origin with divine knowledge gained on the journey, and the process of integration of that knowledge into “normal life”.
When I taught an undergraduate course on Greek heroism, I offered an extra credit project that invited students to map Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey onto one life situation. This assignment yielded extraordinary stories about challenges met and lessons encountered through travel, second language acquisition, health difficulties, lost loves and friendships, authentic expression of self amidst social stigma, new familial and work responsibilities, and other challenges. One student shared with me that he felt a refreshing sense of personal agency as a result of completing the assignment. In my own life similar exercises in personal mythmaking (including the hero’s journey model a la Campbell) had provided helpful perspectives for years, and I was glad to see that this was helpful to others.
Journaling the Personal Mythos
Having read over some of my own journals from the past year, 2019 presented various Campbellian stages of realization: I found a gut-dwelling, steady voice within myself I had not heard in years. I learned the art of critical discernment in the role of student and teacher. I learned to recognize interpersonal cyclical patterns that repeat themselves as dependably as the tides. I learned to speak up for myself clearly and directly. I learned to be accountable for the pain I caused others. I learned to take care of myself in the ways that suited me, including yoga, cooking, writing and performing poetry, singing old Irish songs, and reading short stories. I deepened treasured friendships. I moved back to my hometown. I took steps further in the direction of financial independence.
Keeping a regular journal, especially during the more difficult times of growth, is helpful, because it reveals the learning process, and allows one to look back at the feelings, the insights, and the self-talk that attend the various stages of one’s journey (or whatever you might call your mythic narrative – at present in the Anglo-American consciousness the hero’s journey is widely prevalent, and this is the one I am invoking here, but this is certainly not the only narrative type).
Looking back at these journals can be quite confronting and humiliating, but the lived experience is there, just for the eyes of the experiencer-turned-future-loving-reader. This is very different from writing the story after the close of its lived experience, which is another good exercise (my students’ extra credit assignment).
Personal Mythmaking and New Year’s Intentions
There are many resolutions, calls to adventure, that await. The sheer number of varied New-Year’s- resolution-oriented invitations on social media is overwhelming.
And so the questions come a-hammering:
Which pursuit is really for you?
Is this a good time to set out on a new path in this particular aspect of your life, or is there something to be finished first?
Are you in the trials of initiation? Is there an obstacle you’ve been avoiding that awaits your attention prior to getting on with things?
Are you trudging through the depths of the Underworld? Is there some illumination of the next steps awaiting your sight in the deepest part of the trek?
Are you back where you started, integrating what you have learned?
The New Year is a good time to acknowledge your present stance, and to start from where you are. At least that is what I tell myself, speaking from what feels like a hammock of indolence on Calypso’s Island (see below)…
And wherever you may find yourself in your journey, in your work, it can be an interesting exercise to look for the attendant archetypal forces, whether they lie within yourself, others, or situations.
The below categories are my play on themes from the story of the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey homeward to the island of Ithaca from the Trojan War, as told in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic poem, the Odyssey):
The mentor / the teacher / the one who keeps you on track (the goddess Athena for Odysseus); also the one you may mistrust or whose guidance you may ignore at times.
The Land of the Lotus Eaters / Calypso’s Island – the place where you tend to get distracted, complacent, and drawn away from your work. In Odysseus’ story, Hermes the messenger god goes to Calypso’s island, where Odysseus has been languishing for seven years, to push the hero to continue his journey homeward to Ithaca. So, if you get distracted, be your own messenger and carry on. Or if you are really in the throes of complacency the messenger might just find you…
The Cyclops – the person you are liable to demean, take advantage of, and/or dredge of physical or emotional resources, in service of your work; take care to avoid this, or make proper amends if this has already happened. Odysseus blinds the Cyclops after leading his men into the Cyclops’ cave to steal food and livestock, then endeavoring to claim protection under Zeus as a guest when he was caught red-handed. Yes, the Cyclops threatened to eat them, but still, what bad behavior…
The sorceress / Circe – the dark feminine, the mistress of nature, who transfigures men into animals – the one you cannot fool or con, the one whose power you must acknowledge with full awe and devotion before she can help you (or else you will turn into a pig, I suppose…)
The Underworld – the dark and lonely place where guidance is present but only attainable through faith, right action, and reunion with the departed.
The Phaiakians – the generous helpers and benefactors worthy of enduring gratitude and acknowledgement; the ones who gave Odysseus a banquet, gifts, games, a platform for telling his own story of his travels, and safe passage home to Ithaca in the last stage of his journey.
Yourself as the storyteller – are you talking about your quest (posting on social media counts) more than doing it? Does your pursuit need a wider audience? If so, when is the right time to share your work, and whom do you aim to reach?
Integration and homecoming – roughly half of the Odyssey features Odysseus’ process of reintroducing himself to his homeland, during which he must live as a beggar prior to reclaiming his role as leader of the community. The process of going back home again is consequential, whether that be moving back in with one’s parents, undergoing psychotherapy and grappling with family-of-origin issues, or deciding to root oneself into a brand new space to call home. It takes time, and some patience and willingness to live in obscurity while listening with one’s ear to the ground and learning about the place and how to navigate it.
Penelope – the loved one you say you are doing all this for, but whose needs and personal sacrifices you might be ignoring or suppressing as you forge on. Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited 20 years for his return, fending off suitors and putting their son’s life at risk, while he garnered the experiences in war, travel, and sexual exploits worthy of a “hero” only to come back and tell her that he must go away on ANOTHER quest according to a prophecy (how convenient).
And whether or not you encounter any or all of the above in your pursuit of quests, intentions or resolutions of this year, remember that you are likely playing several of these roles in the journeys of others, and remember that going off course sometimes yields a good story in and of itself…
HAPPY NEW YEAR AND NEW DECADE OF ADVENTURING!!
Caveat: For the record, while I find that the journey of Odysseus is a good archetypal model (especially when things do not go as planned in our own pursuit of life goals) I do not commend Odysseus for his violence, xenophobia, misogyny, disrespect for the gods, foolhardiness, fallaciousness, negligence, and hubris. For a good alternative rendering of this story from Penelope’s standpoint, and the standpoint of Penelope’s 12 nameless maids Odysseus murdered upon his arrival back to Ithaca, read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.
It is days past the full Moon, and she seems to be waning more slowly than usual in my mind, so she is due a treatment in writing, a love letter apt for her cerebral nature…
At the Full Moon, there is always a disclosure, an illumination. But with the Full Moon in Gemini, there are multiplicities of truths and testimonies. There are variants of the same archetype. There are different characters vying to be trusted. Can they all be trusted?
The Full Moon is the imprecise mirror of the Sun, the doppelganger that can reflect solar light to just an intensity that we can behold without blinding ourselves. The Moon shines her fullest light and reveals a new nocturnal world to us that looks like day in black pearlescence.
But while the Full Moon in astrology represents an opportunity for hidden emotional contours and instinctual patterns to be revealed consciously (not in keeping with polite company sometimes), its recent position has made this process far less than straightforward. The Moon had just come from a square to Neptune in Pisces, which would give any such revelations startling, all-encompassing significance, with the caveat that the great meaning illusory. Venus, Saturn, and Pluto are meanwhile bound up in the sign of Capricorn, where relationships, personal and professional, may struggle to operate with customary ease, amidst still-hidden obstacles. And for at least that evening of the Full Moon, while the communicative Moon in Gemini wanted to facilitate collaborative communication and the open exchange of ideas, Neptune was at the ready to dissolve the clarity of the messages, and the Capricorn stellium was primed to leave the more essential truths under heavy guard.
I’ll leave it to you, constant reader, to reflect upon the manifestations of this dynamic you may have met five evenings ago now (Pacific Time, of course 😉).
One interesting manifestation of this Neptunian/Gemini Moon magic
At the Full Moon I met a friend for tea and cake, and instantaneously the café transformed into a vortex for those whose company I enjoy: I saw my colleague whose office is next to mine, having an early dinner; I saw my yoga teacher reading and annotating an enormous tome prior to being set upon by an enthusiastic student; then arrived two old friends whose daughter was my schoolmate for several years. The space was dreamlike, and I delighted in seeing the little worlds I have inhabited in this city throughout my life comingling there. And though the one I was meeting was the one I knew the least at that point, the whole scenario was made all the more interesting by the array of experiences and interests we shared (all quite Gemini-themed): books, ideas, humor, and realms of study.
(Unanswerable) question time
Kinship with another in some (i.e. not all) aspects makes us Full Lunar aspects of each other. We reflect the other just enough for them to see a part of themselves more clearly (whether more or less favorably), and vice versa. And the countless other aspects of ourselves we keep latent, bound up, awaiting yet another appropriate mirror…
Or so my current musings go, in keeping with the sentiment in Cicero’s treatise on friendship, De Amicitia (Section 23): Anyone who looks upon a true friend is looking at a copy of himself.
But surely one could say the same about the enemy, the beloved, and the stranger, if one believes that we see ourselves wherever we go, because we are all forms of Self, in essence, or by some other explanation.
And then there are the many questions to be posed: do we see ourselves in another moreso when we first meet them, or after we have come to know them? Or is the image of the person more of a representation of our worldview, or of our past conditioning, than of ourselves in the present moment? Is it both – is our view of ourselves, and our view of ourselves in another a microcosm of the ways in which we view the world? If we do not allow space for others to grow and transform themselves, how can we support ourselves in doing the same? Do leopards change their spots, or is there a stasis in the essential elements of a personality that defy projection? Or perhaps the perception of stasis or change in a person reflects the same phenomenon we see in ourselves.
Or perhaps the more essential question:
Can we look with love, upon ourselves and others? Can we give ourselves the space to run and writhe and rest in response to the fluctuating feelings and life situations that pass through our bodies in subtle and quite unsubtle ways?
Can we be gracious towards ourselves, knowing that these fluctuations are human?
I have a feeling that no matter how much yoga I practice or how many teachers I study with (including the long-dead ones), I will still be spinning in the dramas of self/other. So, instead of enlightenment I am going for emotional intelligence; not the absence of knowing these fluctuations, but the ability to recognize these fluctuations and their effects. To steep myself in the effects and acknowledge this, in all its complexities.
And when I sit with another person, or look into a mirror, I reliably alternate between feelings of kinship, otherness, disassociation, kinship again, attraction, repulsion. And it is curious to wonder, as does the protagonist at the beginning of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, She Came To Stay, does the world around me take shape because I am looking at it? Do I have a face if I cannot see my face, or touch it? Do I exist if no one is looking? Do I always have to be the one looking at myself?
The kinds of cerebral things that plague one in the wake of the one night in a given year when the teacher (Sagittarius Sun) looks himself in the mirror and sees the student (Moon in Gemini)…
Three poems about a mirror, a doppelganger, the self as watcher of the self
I’ll end this post with a digest of poems that have aided the above cogitations, in chronological order of production:
Narcissus, a young hunter desired by all young men and women refused all his would-be lovers, the last of whom cursed Narcissus. Narcissus stopped one day by a still, clear pool in a clearing in the woods, and fell in love with his reflection he could not embrace, though he tried ceaselessly. Once Narcissus discovered that he was desperately in love with his own reflection, he knew that he would die of heartache, because he could not physically possess his beloved as desired other.
And so he wastes away, and his body transforms into the Narcissus flower. And in the Underworld, his soul stares longingly at its own reflection in the River Styx for eternity.
I do not know what possessed me recently to look back at the work of a 19th-century German poet I had not encountered in almost 10 years.
But I felt good to reacquaint myself. Told in first person, “Der Doppelgänger” is about a man who is wandering empty streets at night and arrives in front of the house of his past beloved, who has not lived in that place for a very long time. He sees a man in front of him, wringing his hands in despair. And then the man turns and looks at the poet-narrator, who is shocked to find that he sees himself in the moonlight (“Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt!”).
I received a beautiful unpublished poem in a poetry exchange, a poem whose author I have never met. The poem was a portrayal of the wasting condition of anorexia from the perspective of the mirror, which sings of its own silence, love, and despair.
And there it all was: the sad futility felt by the family members of the person suffering; the body which is a feared adversary, and a hated prison; the body which works by its own will to keep the soul intact; the body which is always waiting to be loved; the body which is part of the self, and not. And the questions remained with me surrounding the narrator’s point of view: who is watching? The inanimate mirror, or the reflected and disowned aspects of the self that know they are feared when they are looked at, the tender pieces needing the love of the only one whose view matters, the one who looks.